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Veterans toxic exposure bill delayed as cloture attempt rejected

Senators couldn't muster the votes to end debate on benefits bill, despite bipartisan support

Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., objects to the veterans bill on budgetary grounds, calling it a "gimmick" that allows extra spending.
Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., objects to the veterans bill on budgetary grounds, calling it a "gimmick" that allows extra spending. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call file photo)

An effort to give millions of veterans easier access to health and disability benefits suffered another surprising setback Wednesday on the Senate floor when supporters couldn’t muster the 60 votes needed to limit debate.

The 55-42 procedural vote on cloture derailed, at least temporarily, a sweeping expansion of veterans benefits that appeared to be heading to President Joe Biden’s desk this week.

The vote marked the second time the bipartisan legislation hit an unexpected snag. The bill had to be revised — and receive a second vote in both chambers — to remove an obscure tax provision that raised a constitutional concern in the House. The House passed the revised version two weeks ago on a 342-88 vote and the Senate planned to pass it this week.

A nearly identical bill, without the tax tweak, passed the Senate on a lopsided 84-14 vote last month with strong bipartisan support. But Republicans mounted an 11th-hour challenge to the legislation and decided not to let the revised bill advance Wednesday.

Some conservatives have raised objections to the bill because it would reclassify nearly $400 billion in current-law VA spending from discretionary to mandatory accounts, thereby potentially freeing up more budget authority to increase discretionary spending on other domestic programs.

“It’s about a budget gimmick that’s designed to allow hundreds of billions of dollars in additional unrelated spending, having nothing to do with veterans,” said Sen. Patrick J. Toomey, R-Pa., who voted against the cloture motion.

[Amended veterans toxic exposure bill teed up in House]

Toomey used a floor speech Tuesday night to urge his fellow Republicans to join him in blocking the bill because of its potential for allowing more discretionary spending than would otherwise be permitted under budget caps. “It’s about Congress hiding behind an important veterans care bill a massive unrelated spending binge,” he said.

Toomey on Wednesday offered to get rid of the mandatory funding shift by unanimous consent. “We can fix this tonight… once that’s done, this bill sails through this chamber,” he said.

‘Sad day’

But the move infuriated Veterans’ Affairs Chairman Jon Tester, who had been pushing for speedy passage of the long-sought legislation for weeks.

“This is a sad day in the United States Senate,” the Montana Democrat said on the floor. “This is the biggest issue facing our veterans today. Make no mistake about it…. So we can make up all sorts of excuses about how this is going to move money around, but let me tell you something: we’re the ones that decide that.”

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, said the bill would need another fix before it can become law.

“What we’re hoping for is there will be a negotiation to eliminate some of the mandatory spending in the bill,” he said. “And then the bill can pass. But this is a cloture vote to provoke a conversation … but I expect it ultimately will pass in some form or another.”

Senate Majority Leader Charles E. Schumer, who supports the bill, voted against cloture Wednesday to preserve his right to bring the bill back to the floor. He filed a motion to reconsider the cloture vote.

The vote came just as Schumer announced an agreement with Sen. Joe Manchin III, D-W.Va., on the latest Democratic effort to assemble a downsized budget reconciliation package that Republicans oppose. But there was no evidence that the timing of that announcement played a role in the Republican obstruction on the veterans bill.

Despite the partisan fight over mandatory spending, there remains strong bipartisan support for the underlying effort to help more than 3.5 million veterans who were exposed to toxic substances while on overseas deployments.

At its core, the bill would make servicemembers who contracted any of 23 conditions — from brain cancer to hypertension — after being deployed to Iraq, Afghanistan and other combat zones automatically eligible for VA health care and disability benefits. That’s a change from current law, which requires veterans to prove their illnesses were a direct result of their deployments rather than some other factor.

Supporters said the measure is a long-overdue fix for millions of veterans suffering illnesses likely caused by exposure to toxic chemicals from open-air burn pits used at military bases in Iraq, Afghanistan and elsewhere to dispose of trash and hazardous waste. An inability to prove the link between those toxins and illnesses has prevented an estimated 3.5 million veterans from receiving benefits to which they are otherwise entitled.

The measure is expected to cost nearly $280 billion over a decade, according to the Congressional Budget Office.

While both chambers had passed nearly identical measures in recent months, a second vote was deemed necessary to remove an obscure tax provision added by the Senate that drew objections from the House. Since the House had never considered the tax provision, it ran afoul of a constitutional requirement that all revenue measures must originate in the House.

The revised bill strips out that provision, which would have let doctors, nurses and other health care providers receive tax-free buyouts of their contracts if they agree to work for the VA at rural veterans’ clinics.  

Laura Weiss contributed to this report.

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